September 10, 2011

Greener Shopping: Plastics 101

Conscious Consumerism:

Plastics 101, or is it Plastics 1-7

Plastic is everywhere. The word plastic means capable of being shaped or molded. And it has shaped itself into almost every aspect of our daily lives.  However, scientists are finding that an unseen cost to using plastics may be the health of our planet and our bodies. The production and disposal of plastic contribute to an array of environmental problems.  If we take some time to understand plastic, we can became a wiser about using it, and therefore make better choices for our health and our environment.

A Small Chemistry lesson… Plastics are typically polymers of high molecular mass, and may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce production costs. ~Wikipedia

In 1988 The Society of the Plastics (SPI) Industry developed a set of symbols placed on plastics to identify the polymer type. The resin identification coding system is used internationally to allow efficient separation of different polymer types for recycling. The most common plastics have a resin code in a universal recycling symbol often found on the bottom of the product. It is an arbitrarily-assigned number that has no other meaning aside from identifying the specific plastic.

While doing my plastic research, I thought The Healthy ChildHealthy World Organization summarized the safety of the resin codes the best:
PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate): AVOID
Common Uses: Soda Bottles, Water Bottles, Cooking Oil Bottles
Concerns: Can leach antimony and phthalates.

HDPE (High Density Polyethylene): SAFER
Common Uses: Milk Jugs, Plastic Bags, Yogurt Cups

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride, aka Vinyl): AVOID
Common Uses: Condiment Bottles, Cling Wrap, Teething Rings, Toys, Shower Curtains
Concerns: Can leach lead and phthalates among other things. Can also off-gas toxic chemicals.
LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene): SAFER
Common Uses: Produce Bags, Food Storage Containers

PP (Polypropylene): SAFER
Common Uses: Bottle Caps, Storage Containers, Dishware
PS (Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam): AVOID
Common Uses: Meat Trays, Foam Food Containers & Cups
Concerns: Can leach carcinogenic styrene and estrogenic alkylphenols

Other this is a catch-all category which includes:
PC (Polycarbonate): AVOID - can leach Bisphenol-A (BPA). It also includes ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), SAN (Styrene Acrylonitrile), Acrylic, and Polyamide. These plastics can be a safer option because they are typically very durable and resistant to high heat resulting in less leaching. Their drawbacks are that they are not typically recyclable and some need additional safety research. New plant-based, biodegradable plastics like PLA (Polylactic Acid) also fall into the #7 category.

Now go look at what number is on all of your food containers.  What are they? While 2, 4, 5 are the safer, they are sometimes hard to find. For instance when it comes to condiments, I can’t find a ketchup or mayonnaise bottle without a one on the bottom.

If there is NO resin code on your plastic containers, call the manufacture and ask.  Since the resin codes are only for recycling, this would tell me that the manufacture doesn’t care about the environment and recycling the plastic they are creating!!!

To further understand plastic and its numbers, let’s look at the second part of recycling it…what is plastic being recycled into?  That ketchup bottle with a resin code of one isn't turned into another ketchup bottle. It is recycled into polyester fibres, which are a base material for the production of clothing, pillows and carpets.

Here’s a quick summary of what the resin codes tells us the plastic can become:
Polyester fibres, thermoformed sheet, strapping, and soft drink bottles.

Bottles, grocery bags, milk jugs, recycling bins, agricultural pipe, playground equipment, and plastic lumber (like outdoor deck flooring).

Pipe, fencing, shower curtains, lawn chairs and non-food bottles

Plastic bags, 6 pack rings, dispensing bottles, tubing, and various molded laboratory equipment
Auto parts, industrial fibers, food containers, and dishware

Desk accessories, cafeteria trays, plastic utensils, toys, and insulation board and other expanded polystyrene products (e.g., Styrofoam)

Bottles, headlight lenses, and safety shields/glasses, (and may leak bisphenol A in the food & environment).

Whether it is upcycling, buying handmade or reducing plastic use, becoming ethical consumers is something that everyone should look into. Does value or values determine your purchases? Educating yourself about the products you buy & their affect on the environment is vital to our future and the future of our planet. 
Look for our next article to discuss safer options that we, the consumers, have to reduce, reuse and recycle the plastic in our lives. 


  1. I'm picky about plastic, especially with my business. I try not to use it at all in general, but if I must I find partially recycled. I'm big on glass and paper everything. Thank you for sharing - this is incredibly informative.

  2. I agree with the above comment, if you can avoid it all the better. If not find a good way to recycle it.

  3. Thank you for the comments! Yes find a good way to recycle it! Since it was so long I broke up the article into two parts. The next one will have examples & ideas on what to do with the plastic we use. :) Thanks again.

  4. Thank you so much for breaking all this down for us! One reason I use soda bottles for my lamps is because they can't be I upcycle! I know your article will help us all to become more environmentally conscious. Thanks again!